Randall Miller had just begun shooting the Gregg Allman biographical movie "Midnight Rider" when the production turned into a nightmare — a freight train traveling 55 mph plowed into the director's crew on a Georgia railroad bridge, injuring six film workers and killing a young camera assistant.
A year later, Miller is scheduled to stand trial along with his business partner wife and the movie's executive producer in a rare case of filmmakers being prosecuted for deaths on their sets. A jury in rural Wayne County will have to decide if the train collision that killed 27-year-old Sarah Jones was an accident or the result of a criminal act. And if a crime occurred, which of the defendants, if any, should take the blame?
"It may be difficult for the prosecutor to sort out exactly who is responsible," said Ron Carlson, a law professor emeritus at the University of Georgia who specializes in criminal law.
Miller, his wife Jody Savin and executive producer Jay Sedrish face up to 11 years in a Georgia prison if convicted of involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing. They have all pleaded not guilty.
CSX Transportation, the railroad company that owns the bridge where the crash occurred, has said it twice denied the filmmakers permission to shoot footage on its tracks in rural southeast Georgia. Under state law, someone can be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for committing a misdemeanor — in this case trespassing — that unintentionally causes another person to be killed.
Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday morning in Wayne County Superior Court, about 70 miles southwest of Savannah. The judge has set aside a week for the trial.
It was the first day of shooting on "Midnight Rider" when Miller and his crew stepped onto the railroad bridge spanning the Altamaha River on Feb. 20, 2014. Actor William Hurt was on the set in his role as the Allman Brothers Band singer in his later years. A metal-framed bed was pulled across the tracks as a prop. When the train struck, it smashed the bed and hurled metal fragments at the fleeing crew.
The fast-moving train struck and killed Jones, a young camera assistant from Atlanta who had worked on TV series including "Army Wives" and "The Vampire Diaries." Her death galvanized behind-the-scenes film workers nationwide to push for improved safety standards on sets.
A sobbing Miller called Jones' parents to tell them she was dead. The director, whose previous films included "Bottle Shock" and "CBGB," testified last May in a related civil case that he had been told only two trains a day crossed the bridge and he only set out with his crew onto the trestle after a pair of trains had passed. Asked if the crew had obtained permission from the railroad to film on its tracks, Miller said that wasn't his job. But he bristled at the suggestion he recklessly put his crew in danger.
"I was in the middle of the track and I almost died," Miller said in civil court May 12.
Carlson, the law professor, said he expects Miller's attorneys will try to persuade the jury that "this was a mistake but it was an innocent mistake."
"He wasn't sending other people into a place where he thought it was dangerous to go and that was evidenced by his own presence there," Carlson said.
A fourth "Midnight Rider" defendant, assistant director Hillary Schwartz, has also been charged but prosecutors plan to try to her separately. That means she could be called as a witness to testify against the others.
The last high-profile prosecution of a filmmaker in an on-set death occurred after a helicopter crash killed actor Victor Morrow and two children during filming of the "Twilight Zone" movie in 1982. Five years later, director John Landis and four others stood trial on manslaughter charges. A jury acquitted them all.
In March 2011, a stunt coordinator on the Batman movie "The Dark Knight" was cleared by a British jury in the death of a camera man killed in an on-set vehicle crash.
The "Midnight Rider" movie has been in limbo since the Georgia train crash. Allman sued Miller to prevent the director from reviving the film. They settled out of court last year and terms were not disclosed.